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The Journey to a Personal Mastery System

May 14, 2014 by
dan joseph

Dan Joseph

Originally published in the Reinventing Schools Coalition May newsletter

It all starts with an essential question.  What do we want our students to know, do and become?  This question is to be asked and answered at all levels of the learning community. If our answers to this question do not fit the reality, then we must reflect on our systems for educating all of our children

As a leader of a school that has engaged in these deep reflective questions, I am reminded of a typical exchange I would have with visiting members from other school districts.  Over the few years, a number of schools and districts would come to visit and see our standards based educational model.  Often times I would ask a very simple question: “Why are you here and what is the outcome that you would like to have as a result of your visit?” This was a question that we asked prior to any exchange of information or classroom visits.  The most popular answer was:  “We need to produce a standards based report card.”  Aside from a state mandate, this is not a compelling and deep reason to change a system of instruction to meet the needs of all students.  There was a disconnection in these teachers’ minds relating to the identification of the right solution or even the problem.  However, by lunchtime these same teachers and leaders would realize the depth of change they were seeing.  I do believe they returned to their districts with a better sense of what the change needed to encompass.

So are you and your district on the right track?  We thought we were, until we started to look at ourselves and our system. Why were we working so hard, yet our students were not making the gains that we believed they should be making?

This statement brought to light a system that needed to be changed, not any one program or teacher, but the entire system.  You probably work in a district that was similar to ours.  We had RTI (Response To Intervention), 504, IEPs, PBIS, AIMSweb, NWEA, PLCs and UBD.  How and to what could we align these silos?

Well to start off, we needed to make the following promises for every child:

  • Understand how a student learns best and have a strong voice in their learning.
  • Have students work at their instructional level to engage and accelerate their learning.
  • Offer clarity and transparency so that students can navigate and monitor their learning.
  • Finally, build a system where students are driven by their passion and realize their potential.

Sounds great, but many times the journey away from the reality of our current situation to the vision of the promise is too difficult to even take a first step. Transformational change is difficult and deep; it requires an understanding of individuals, systems and the culture of an organization. I often reflect on Phillip Schlechty’s quote, “Structural change that is not supported by cultural change will eventually be overwhelmed by the culture, for it is in the culture that any organization finds meaning and stability.” (Schlechty, Shaking Up the Schoolhouse: How to Support and Sustain Educational Innovation (2001), p. 52)

marzanoMarzano’s Hierarchical Structure for High Reliability Schools (right) This is a very interesting organizational concept in that it relates to the idea that when “the public expects fail-safe performance, successful organizations adjust their operations to prevent failures” (Thomas Bellamy).  Just this statement alone demonstrates the need to view learning organizations and their cultures in a very different way.

Our experience working with districts demonstrates the need to start with a solid foundation of beliefs that must be put into action.  This moral purpose, or burning platform, is the first step in building a shared vision and intentional leadership at all levels. The system that we are seeking to change is one that most of our community members have experienced in their own lives. There is a level of understanding and intimacy that parents have with the education of their children and their own experiences. They see a report card and it is familiar to them. When we seek to change our system, we may be treading in these familiar areas, so there is a need for common ground and understanding as to “why” a change may be needed to transform our entire system.

The hierarchical structure places factors that influence student learning in relation to each other as schools work to enhance their effectiveness. In order to progress to the next level, schools will need to build sustainable capacity at each level. In order to have an instructional framework that develops and maintains effective instruction, you will first need to provide a safe and orderly environment.

The highlighted key areas that follow require focus, support and capacity to activate and sustain the change that is required to level up this hierarchy. Keep in mind that this is not a checklist. It is a guide to transform your organization and will require consistent checking, adjusting, monitoring and measuring.  If we are to reflect on this idea of an organization as a living thing, we need to understand its inner workings, the parts that make up the whole. When referencing learning organizations, we are thinking about the policies, practices and publics that we serve.

The first portion of the list addresses the “why” of the change and is directed primarily at building a culture to support and initiate change.  Through the process of alignment and prioritization, members of the learning community will be given a voice and choice in the change.  That sense of empowerment and shared leadership, in turn, allows the transformation to move forward through the thoughts, actions and beliefs of every member of the organization.

Shared Vision and Moral Purpose (Why the change?) With the focus on student standards in the public education field, often we are asked what role does a shared vision play in relation to student standards. When considering that standards play a significant role in the system design of schools, driving what is taught, learned, measured, and reported, it makes sense that the more stakeholder input is aligned to students outcomes the better. When students, staff, community members, and other partners believe in the learning outcomes for students, an openness to learn and support the learning is the result.

Collective Responsibility/ Relationships (Who does what?)  When a system is in deep change, the monitoring and measuring are important and must be tied to the larger vision and core values of the organization. It has to be “the compass” that guides each individual in an organization to the same end point. Ambiguity, tension and risk-taking are not seen as obstacles. The people who really do the best are those who actually sense, [and almost enjoy], lack of definition around their roles. This would be the “true sharing” as indicated by the continuum of collegiality, Judith Warren-Little. (1982)

Strategic Planning (How?) It is easy to say the words, “all kids can learn…” but how do our system and culture create this outcome? This idea denotes a basic, yet foundational premise around what is important. Many times we need to understand the “why” before we discuss the “how.” Precision, strategic design and high yield strategies are based on and aligned to an organization’s core values. These values identify the moral purpose of the organization and therefore can direct and support transformational change.  The Leadership Plan must identify the key components above and their relationship to the shared vision. As the leader identifies the “what” and the “why” of their plan, they must now build the capacity to do the work. Each item must have a clear expectation, measurement and time-line.

Transparency & Shared Leadership (Accountability and Alignment) We all understand the importance of creating a culture that can support change. So what practices can contribute to supporting collective responsibility and efficacy? Research supports practices that build trust, reinforce comfort with ambiguity and develop a shared sense of power and autonomy. Hopefully, we are beyond the need to control the people and ideas, and are now relying on the compulsion offered by moral purpose and direction of the shared vision. So, if we know we are to come together to ensure student success, why is it so hard?  Change is the process of letting go of something and moving toward something else. Think of change needing momentum, therefore letting go gives direction and energy. In our minds, accepting change is a validation of a failure. You remember the old saying, “Don’t fix what ain’t broke!”

Learner Centered Culture!   What if schools understood their role as building leaders and problem solvers?  For students to see the importance of the work they must be willing to invest in their own learning. How can we prepare students for a future that we cannot predict?  The age of information has created a world that is ever-changing.  The learner’s tool box for success in life, school and employment is very different that it was even a decade ago.  This transformation is from a factory model to a model of student learning that is personalized, with students as engaged thinkers and leaders of their own learning.  Teachers’ roles, as well as the role of the students, curriculum, and assessment are in a state of transformation.  These changes will stretch our thinking and evaluate our instructional practices based on student outcomes and data. The idea of design must begin with the needs of the student (customer), and result in added value to the student.  This requires the role of the teacher, student, curriculum and assessment to change in the following manner:

  • Value – There needs to be a reason involved with the assignment for them to invest their time in their own progress. Need to connect with their interests.
  • Commitment – Students need to see the importance of the work in order to be committed to it. Getting them “into” the work creates commitment.
  • Persistence – Work needs to be challenging (a step above their level) in order for students to complete it. It adds value when they have to think further.
  • Gratification – Easy/busy work does not motivate them to try…create a growth mindset!

Transparent and Rigorous Standards The system ensures learning targets are transparent and navigable by all. All are engaged in the process of assessment, progress monitoring and goal-setting. If this system is established, learning is owned and accelerated. In other words, people would be MOTIVATED to achieve.  This is an evolutionary process that can occur in stages.  Assuming as a starting point, the district’s current curricula would reflect the content area standards.  There is intention to align learner outcomes to these standards.  Here is the progression that would build off this traditional view of curriculum.

  • Standards-referenced – there are direct and intentional references to standards in content areas curricula.
  • Standards-Based would be the next logical progression –  curricula is based on what the students should know and be able to as expressed by the content and cognitive requirement of the standard.
  • Standards- Driven – here the standards are driving the learning design and outcomes.  The system is designed as a learning progression that goes beyond chorological age or systems that are time based.  The standard is driving the placement, pacing and leveling of student learning.
  • Competency- Based (Personal Mastery) – this stage is very similar to the above stage except exchange the idea of the standard as the accelerator and put in its place the learner. Students move on to the next standard or level as they demonstrate mastery of the skills and knowledge.  The learner can independently navigate and monitor their pathway.  This requires transparency and continuous feedback so that the learner can lead and guide their learning.

Instructional framework (Personal Mastery) How does a student respond to instruction?  By definition, a personal mastery system is one in which all “master their learning at a personal level.” This begins by ensuring a learner-centered environment with a solid foundation of safety and efficiency. All are engaged in the development of culture to support learning. Building learning systems with the students at the center requires the schools to identify the systems and structures that promote the following instructional components.

  • Effective classroom management techniques
  • Effective instructional strategies
  • Effective classroom curriculum design

Designing in a personal mastery system requires alignment of the standard, assessment and instructional strategy with respect to the capacities of the learner. The engaged learner, working at their pace through a transparent learning progression, is the very heart of a personal mastery system. Providing opportunities for students to draw upon their own self-knowledge and strengths in order to delve more deeply into the learning is a critical component to the success of this system.  The school leader needs to ensure that all students have guaranteed access to the critical content and skills through effective instructional practices that engage the learner and promote personal mastery.

Data Driven for Continuous Improvement This is the systemic operationalization of your shared vision. The idea of continuous improvement comes from the Japanese word Kaizen (Marzano 2005). It is considered a critical aspect of incremental improvement by all members of an organization.  A leader must invite continuous improvement into the organization and keep it alive by keeping the goals of the organization up front in the minds of employees and judging the effectiveness of the organization in terms of the goals.

According to “The Marzano School Leadership Evaluation Model,” the leadership framework has Five Domains:

  • Data-driven focus on student achievement
  • Continuous improvement of instruction
  • Guaranteed and viable curriculum
  • Cooperation and collaboration
  • School climate

A highly reliable organization must identify their capacities to initiate and sustain second order change at all levels of the organization in these domains. Whether you are a superintendent who is developing a SMART goal to monitor and measure the impact of a change, or a second grader who is developing a learning goal for themselves based on numerical operations of base ten, everyone in the organization is in a constant state of progress!  This is a learning organization as it is modeling continuous improvement.  As you build your leadership capacities, remember the idea of continuous improvement to ensure systemic change in all domains that leaders need to monitor.  These are the leadership areas, behaviors and actions that require time, data and reflection to bring about the deep change required to be a high reliability school.

One measure that offers the most important indicator of influence and impact is continuous improvement of instruction.  It is essential for schools to ensure that all students have the opportunity to learn through intentional instructional practices. Leaders need to create clear expectations of teachers as well a system of ongoing monitoring and measuring of instructional impact on student learning.  By promoting a growth mindset and monitoring the impact of our systemic change based upon our vision, we will be checking and adjusting all of the time.

About the Author

Daniel Joseph is an Education Specialist with the Reinventing Schools Coalition (RISC) and an educational leader in the State of Maine. He has worked with his local school district, the State Department of Education, and a variety of other partnerships to transform the educational system. You can read a full biography here.

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